Poila Baisakh is primarily a festivity once associated with the business class among the Bengalis. It was the benias of the foreign rulers who celebrated the Bengali New Year with pomp and gaiety. During the early days of Raj the British mixed freely with the natives taking part in their festivities and even patronising them. Though the administration followed the Gregorian calendar, Poila Baisakh indicated the beginning of the financial year. Even today businessmen ceremoniously bring their red cloth bound ledgers books to the Kali temples at Kalighat and Thanthania to seek blessings from the goddess, writes Tarun Goswami.
Poila Baisakh, the first day of the Bengali Calendar was celebrated with pomp and grandeur in the houses of rich Bengali businessmen – the Seths, Bysacks and the Mullicks. It was celebrated with much fanfare in the house of Shiv Chandra Dawn. Every year he would invite nearly 1000 guests for the customary feast in which fifty to sixty dishes were served to the guests. There were 10 to 15 varieties of sherbets to cool their thirst in the summer. Though there was no ice available in the market, special arrangements were made to procure it. Twenty pankhawallahs were deployed to ensure that the guests do not sweat in the unbearable scorching afternoon heat. A special puja of Lord Ganesh and Lakshmi was held in the house on the occasion and the family priest would then write a hymn in salutation of the elephant-god on the ledger book. Musicians played shehnai from early morning. The family members would take a holy dip in the sacred River Ganga during the morning hours.
Similarly, Poila Baisakh was celebrated in the house of Ramchandra Basak on Maharshi Devendra Road in Burrabazar. The family had amassed great wealth from exporting spices. Before the auspicious day the residence would be given a fresh coat of paint and family members including the domestic helps wore new clothes. The women got new set of ornaments and the family jeweller would visit the houses in January to show them the new pieces, particularly those in fashion among English ladies. Long, simple chains of gold and stone studded bangles had become popular in particular.
After worshipping the idol of Ganesh, new ledger books were brought out and the old ones put inside iron chests. Chilled sherbets of lime and sugar were served to the guests who were invited on the occasion. It was the Basak family who had introduced rose-cream and lemon sandesh on the occasion. Rabri, rashmalai, chitrakut were also served. Fish was brought from Notun Bazar and the delicious dishes were served to the guests.
The Bengali New Year was also an occasion for celebration for the publishers of College Street boi para. The litterateurs were invited and there were long sessions of adda. Tarashankar Bandhopadhyay, Gajendranath Mitra, Pramathanath Bishi participated along with those of the next generation – Samaresh Basu, Shakti Chattopadhyay and Sunil Gangopadhyay – all took part in the adda which can be said to be the precursor of the modern literary festival. New titles in Bengali would be published on the occasion. Mr Sudhangshu Dey, head of Deys publishing house reminisced: “Sherbets from Paramount or Paragon would be served in this adda of litterateurs. Everyone was given a packet of sweets.” However, after the Kolkata Book Fair became a part of the city’s calendar, no one waited for the Bengali New Year to release new titles or organise such interactive sessions.
Poila Baishak was celebrated with great enthusiasm in the jewellery houses. It was a custom among the wealthy families to place an order on the day which was considered to be auspicious. The customers were treated with sweets and Bengali calendar by the jewellers, a custom which eventually spread among other trades as well. But now people prefer to buy gold on Dhanteras before Diwali. Mr Kamal Roy, a jeweller remembered the days when they would often visit “the houses of their customers who would place orders on the condition that the ornament would be delivered a day before the auspicious occasion.”
Musical programmes were also a part of the Bengali New Year celebration. A classical programme was held by the Ghosh family of Pathuriaghata where vocalists like Ustad Bade Golam Ali Khan, Amir Khan and Viswadeb Chattopadhyay participated. Another musical programme was held in the house of Raja Manindra Nandi to celebrate the New Year. Montu Bose, owner of the Basusree Cinema Hall was an influential man and had contacts with artistes. This was the only programme where Uttam Kumar used to sing Rabindrasangeet in public. The auditorium would be full. Hementa Mukhopadhyay, Sandhya Mukhopadhyay, Arati Mukherjee, Nirmala Mishra were the regular participants in this annual function.
Ironically, when entrepreneurship among Bengalis is on the wane and Bengali Calendar and almanac have lost their place in the household, Poila Baisakh celebration has gained popularity, spreading its wings on cosmopolitan culture of the city where Bengali cuisine is finding more takers every day.